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…. They had conquered a notorious hill. They had lived in trenches that had been alternately French and German. These trenches sometimes lay filled with bodies in different stages of decomposition. They were once men in the prime of their lives, but had fallen for the possession of this hill. This hill, that was partly built on dead bodies already. A battle after which they lay rotting, fraternally united in death….
(Georges Blond – Verdun).

'Verdun' has come to represent all the horrors of the First World War, of the pointless massacres, the endless sacrifices of human lives in the battle over a tiny piece of land. 'Verdun' is the symbol of complete annihilation: a fault line in our civilisation (as the Dutch author Richard Heijster so eloquently put it).

This story of the battle of Verdun relates the horrors and the pointlessness of the trench war. It tells us of the mincer of Verdun: where humans were beaten to a pulp by the artillery ('the queen of the battlefield') in a pointless 'material battle' (in German: 'Materialschlacht') without any possible strategic justification.

Looking back it becomes obvious that this was an absurd war. We can hardly imagine why hundreds of thousands of young men enthusiastically flung themselves into it. We can hardly imagine the horrors of the battlefield where these same young men crawled into a universe where they had nothing to go by: the Hell of Verdun. And if they happened to survive: how could they still believe in life when they had seen things worse than death? How could this bestiality ever be in harmony with every day life? With beauty, love and a zest for living?

Menno P. Wielinga

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